One of the traits I’ve always admired about Gerry Conway as a writer is just how much of a craftsman he’s always been. Say what you will about some of the goofier concepts and characters that he’s introduced into the world of Spider-Man over the years (Aunt May’s marriage to Doctor Octopus anyone?), but Conway has always been a confident storyteller that knows the value of what he is writing and where it is headed. After the first two arcs of “Spiral,” in Amazing Spider-Man #16.1 and 17.1, I think it is safe to say that Conway’s regard for his craft remains just as strong as it was the day he left the book.
It is this dedication to technique that makes Amazing Spider-Man #17.1 worth a look, particularly in regards to Gerry Conway’s interpretation of Spider-Man’s voice. Here Spider-Man is introspective and proactive, taking down Hammerhead’s enforcers with nary a thought and collaborating with partners to effectively deal with the burgeoning gang war. Yet, Spider-Man is aware enough to react to when he’s getting played or when his partners are willing to compromise on their morals. This isn’t rocket science, but having a protagonist that is forward thinking and full of agency does a lot to infuse a narrative with value.
As the story continues it is clear that Spider-Man, especially Peter Parker, is not the main focus of “Spiral.” Yet again, Captain Watanabe and her alter-ego Wraith are caught up in morally dubious deeds centered on channeling her grief into righteous anger and revenge against the gang lords that are trying to take over her precinct. The Watanabe character has never been more interesting than she is here and reading what seems to be her decent into criminality is intensely compelling.
That said, the split between Spider-Man’s smart analysis of Watanabe’s self-destruction and her story of self-righteous anger dissolves the focus of Gerry’s narrative. We are provided the thoughts of Spider-Man and yet most of the story centers on Watanabe, whose thoughts are kept from us. In this way, Amazing Spider-Man #17.1 is confused about whose perspective we are meant to be following and who its central protagonist is.
Despite this lack of clarity, the scenes that do occur within these pages, particularly the dialogue driven ones, are dramatically satisfying, if not morally ambiguous. Watanbe’s meetings with her chief, Judge Howell, and Mr. Negative present a compelling character that is willing to bend the law and operate with the criminal underworld, even when presented with compelling stories of tragedy. That Spider-Man learns to no longer give Yuri the benefit of the doubt by Amazing Spider-Man #17.1’s end says a lot about just how low Yuri has been willing to sink.
It is a shame then that Conway’s story is undermined by the incredibly ill-fitting artwork by Carlo Barberi. While the pencils themselves aren’t the worst that a Spider-Man comic has seen (far from it), Barberi’s Ramos-inspired figures and their cartoonish builds are neither detailed nor expressive enough to bring the story to life. Colorist Israel Silva relies too heavily on shaders and flat tonal gradients to fill in lifeless backgrounds. Barberi’s visual geography is almost always confusing, with characters constantly changing their screen direction within a scene. There seems to be little thought put into how all these moments play out visually, especially when so many characters escape off-panel. The reveal that Tombstone had been taken out by Spider-Man and the Wraith during the last issue reveals a story-altering coloring mistake in the previous issue that only served to confuse me here.
From an editorial perspective, there are a few strange notes that strike as discordant with previous Spider-Man stories. In particular, I would point to the inclusion of Phil Urich’s Goblin King who appears here with no mention of his incarceration at the end if AXIS: Hobgoblin #3. I’m not usually a stickler for details pertaining to the power-levels of characters in Spider-Man stories but I found it a bit strange that Spider-Man was able to dispatch Hammerhead with a single punch considering that the character’s bones are built out of adamantium, an addition to his character that had a devastating effect on Spider-Man back in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #575.
At this point I’m not quite sure what to make of Gerry Conway’s “Spiral” story. Its various elements, outside of art, are well handled but don’t really quite fit together. I worry that as the story gets more complicated, with the addition of additional gangs, any narrative cohesion that has been established will quickly break apart. Gerry’s Spider-Man is as refreshingly voiced as ever, but that’s just not enough to make up for this issue’s confused perspective and discordant art.